My former editor at USA Today, Heather Tucker, came up with a smart idea when NASCAR began its winner-take-all championship race in 2014.
With all the craziness and unpredictability in the immediate aftermath of the race, Heather asked if I would submit four pre-written columns — one for each championship scenario — before the green flag ever waved.
That way, my editors would have some analysis to post as a placeholder while the reporters ran out to pit road and gathered material for post-race coverage.
This was a challenge, but also something I ended up looking forward to each year. It became a test of trying to anticipate what something would mean if it happened — and it was sort of fun to think about the possibilities.
Obviously, three-quarters of the columns were never published/posted because they were about events that did not occur. They are more worthless than the losing team’s Super Bowl merchandise.
But I thought you might get a kick out of scanning through them, so here they are.
Carl Edwards, 2016 Sprint Cup Series champion
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Go ahead, Carl Edwards. Flip out. After 12 full NASCAR seasons, you’re finally a Cup champion at age 37.
It’s been a long road for the Missouri native famous for backflipping off his car in celebration. A former substitute teacher who once handed out business cards to every car owner in sight at Midwest short tracks, Edwards now stands at the pinnacle of the biggest racing series in North America.
The journey was not without heartbreak along the way. Edwards had previously finished second in the championship two times, but none more notable than his 2011 battle against Tony Stewart. That year, he had the best average finish ever in the Chase – but still lost on a tiebreaker after 10 grueling weeks.
How interesting, then, that Edwards became a champion in Stewart’s final race as a NASCAR driver.
Though Edwards is no longer a young gun, he has a chance to help NASCAR bring in some new fans thanks to his camera-friendly persona and marketability. He will be a fine ambassador as champion, joking around during TV appearances and always making sure to say the right thing, representing NASCAR the best way he knows how.
The championship, which is the second in a row for Joe Gibbs Racing, also validates Edwards’ decision to leave Roush Fenway Racing after the 2014 season. It only took Edwards two seasons to win a title for Gibbs and Toyota, and Edwards finished the season with his most victories since 2008.
It will be fun to see Edwards share in the joy of his celebration with fans. He may even follow through on his promise to finally join Twitter – which he said he would do if he won the title. Edwards has always given his race trophies away, determined to let others share in his success.
The Sprint Cup, though? He might just keep that one for himself.
Joey Logano, 2016 Sprint Cup Series champion
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Welcome to the Logano Era.
You might not realize it yet, but a new moment in NASCAR arrived Sunday with Joey Logano’s first NASCAR championship, which he clinched Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
At age 26, it will almost certainly not be Logano’s last. In fact, he’s just getting started.
Think about it: Logano likely has 15-20 more years of being competitive in NASCAR if he chooses to do so and stays healthy, and it ultimately might the Team Penske driver – not Jimmie Johnson or anyone else – who gets to eight championships first.
Yes, we’re serious.
Logano would be a good candidate to become the new face of NASCAR after the current crop of 40something drivers – Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – say goodbye in the next five years or so. Jeff Gordon is already retired, and Sunday was Tony Stewart’s last race.
The only problem is, the fans don’t like Logano. They think he’s a spoiled and arrogant, and don’t appreciate how he’s taken on the established drivers – with aggressive, hard racing.
Logano and teammate Brad Keselowski have routinely gotten more boos than even Kyle Busch in recent years, as the Team Penske drivers both value winning above hurting anyone’s feelings. It’s paid off, as team owner Roger Penske now gets to celebrate a Cup championship along with his IndyCar title in the team’s 50 th anniversary season.
But Logano’s detractors couldn’t be more wrong about Logano as a person. Outside of the car, he’s warm and friendly, a true delight to those he encounters in daily life. Other drivers make fun of his constant squints, which are because he’s constantly smiling and laughing.
If NASCAR is able to put that side of Logano on display now that he’s a champion, the sport will be better off – especially if he continues to win. Logano won’t be a popular winner for now, but perhaps he can use this opportunity to win over some new fans.
Kyle Busch, 2016 Sprint Cup Series champion
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Make it two in a row for No. 18.
Kyle Busch became the first driver to repeat under NASCAR’s elimination-style Chase for the Sprint Cup format, taking his second career title at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday. In doing so, he called into question the conventional wisdom this format creates unpredictable outcomes.
After all, Busch seems to know exactly what he’s doing.
Busch is now the first driver to win back-to- back titles since Jimmie Johnson won five straight from 2006-10. Who could have ever imagined that Busch would master this minefield of a Chase format after constantly coming up short in the original version?
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver used to be out of the running by November every year, but he seems to have adapted to the new format. Busch had an even better Chase this year than he did last year, putting forth consistent finishes week after week en route to his second title.
And Busch, only 31, might just be getting started. He probably still has 10 or 15 competitive years left – if he chooses – which makes him a threat to quickly become one of NASCAR’s all-time champions. Who’s to say he can’t make it three in a row next season?
NASCAR fans have seen Busch mature before their eyes. The punk who intentionally took out Ron Hornaday seems to be long gone, replaced by a more level-headed driver. He still gets angry when things don’t go his way, of course – but the meltdowns aren’t YouTube-worthy embarrassments.
Perhaps it’s fatherhood that’s mellowed Busch. Perhaps it’s the comeback from a broken leg and foot last year. Perhaps it’s just a steady progression and the influence of his wife, Samantha, and those positive forces around him.
Either way, Busch’s performance hasn’t suffered. He’s better than ever on the track, and now puts himself into an elite group of multiple championship winners.
Martin Truex Jr., 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – When factoring in preseason expectations, Martin Truex Jr. may have just become the most out-of-nowhere champion in NASCAR history.
If anyone claims they thought Truex would have a shot to win the Sprint Cup Series title this season, they’re lying. The Caesars Palace sports book had Truex as a 250/1 underdog at the start of the year – by comparison, Danica Patrick was 150/1 – and not one person in the 100-member industry survey known as the “Century Poll” picked Truex to win.
Even entering this weekend, the Furniture Row Racing driver was largely an afterthought in comparison to Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.
But everyone was wrong. Truex beat them all, and now he’s the 2015 NASCAR champion.
It’s been quite a journey to reach this point.
He entered the Cup Series with high expectations after back-to-back Xfinity Series titles in 2004 and 2005, only to win one race in his first seven seasons.
At Michael Waltrip Racing, he made the Chase in 2012 and won a race in 2013, setting himself up for another Chase berth. He seemingly raced his way into the show at Richmond International Raceway, but it turned out MWR manipulated the results to get him in.
He was removed from the playoff and his team crumbled in the aftermath of the scandal. Sponsor NAPA left and Truex lost his ride.
The New Jersey native landed at Furniture Row, a single-car team from Denver, last year. But there was no success to be found.
He suffered through the worst year of his career, finished 24th in the standings and looked like an absolute non-factor. At the same time, longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and Truex struggled to balance his personal and professional life.
This year, though, there was magic to be found. Furniture Row blossomed with new crew chief Cole Pearn, and Truex opened the season with top-10 finishes in 14 of the first 15 races – including a stirring victory at Pocono Raceway in June.
A summer slump made Truex drop off the radar, but he showed signs of strength again once the Chase started. He didn’t finish worse than 15th in any of the races leading to Homestead, and that turned out to be enough to advance through each elimination round on points.
It’s also been a positive year for Pollex, who has just three more chemotherapy treatments in her battle to beat cancer. She and Truex are some of NASCAR’s most philanthropic people, and their annual Catwalk for a Cause event – featuring children with cancer – is one of the highlights of the NASCAR calendar.
Now, the couple will be able to toast to good health, a turnaround year for both – and a championship.
Kevin Harvick, 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – In the end, the fastest car won. Again.
Kevin Harvick made it two straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, capping off a season in which he typically showed up at the track as the car to beat.
Though Harvick only had three wins entering Homestead, he could have had four, six — maybe even eight more. He compiled an astonishing 12 second-place finishes prior to Homestead – the most of any driver since Bobby Allison in 1972 — while crushing his previous career highs for top-five finishes, top-10s and laps led.
It was a much more dominating season than in his first championship run, which came during his debut season at Stewart-Haas Racing. Paired with crew chief Rodney Childers, the No. 4 was the favorite entering the championship weekend — and the season itself.
But to pull off a repeat, Harvick had to be fast enough to avoid the many pitfalls that come with the Chase for the Sprint Cup. A playoff that has often turned wacky and wild took out many contenders through odd circumstances, but it somehow couldn’t prevent Harvick from winning for a second straight year.
Harvick’s Chase this time was far less smooth than his first championship year. He opened the Chase by getting crashed by Jimmie Johnson, then punching the six-time champion during a conversation in the driver motorhome lot.
The next week, he dominated at New Hampshire Motor Speedway but ran out of gas and left without comment. That left Dover International Speedway, where he again dominated and scored the victory in a must-win situation – only to be accused by competitors of intentionally damaging his car during the celebration.
At Talladega Superspeedway three weeks later, Harvick’s engine was about to blow up on a green-white-checkered restart. But just when it looked grim, Harvick triggered a multi-car crash – some drivers said intentionally – to end the race and preserve his spot in the next round.
But it still wasn’t easy. At Texas Motor Speedway, he had to drive the last 100 laps holding a broken shifter in place with one hand. That summed up his Chase overall: Managing to perform despite facing more adversity than most other drivers.
In the end, Harvick made it through to Homestead and was able to perform in a high-pressure situation yet again. The 39-year-old might be known as “The Closer,” but he should also be known as Mr. Clutch.
Jeff Gordon, 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Jeff Gordon’s mere presence as a contender in NASCAR’s championship race was a fairy tale in itself – not only for Gordon and his team, but for NASCAR and its fans.
As everyone knows, not all fairy tales have a happy ending. But this one did.
Gordon became a member of the most exclusive club in sports on Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, joining the likes of John Elway and Ray Lewis as legends who went out on top, retiring from their sport as champions.
But Gordon’s achievement on an individual level might be even more impressive. In some ways, it’s the ultimate mic drop.
Fourteen years after the “Drive for Five” began, Gordon is finally a five-time Sprint Cup Series champion. He crossed the finish line first among four Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers in NASCAR’s championship race, electrifying a sold-out crowd filled with people who traveled from all over the country to see Gordon’s last race.
Homestead was already going to be a celebration of Gordon’s career and legacy. A certain Hall of Famer and one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers ever, Gordon helped take the sport to new heights on a national level with his personality and marketability.
Now it’s a celebration of all that and more – and unlike Gordon’s career, the party isn’t going to end any time soon. This is probably the greatest feel-good moment in NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the 2001 Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway, just months after his father was killed at the same track.
Certainly, the other drivers will be disappointed to come up short. But everyone knew how big it was to be part of Jeff Gordon’s last race. Kyle Busch repeatedly referred to Gordon as his childhood hero this week; Kevin Harvick said he was holding back from his normal head games out of respect to Gordon.
In terms of larger-than-life personality and character, Gordon might only be matched by Richard Petty — whose own final race was Gordon’s first.
As Gordon’s career wound down this season, there was debate over his greatest achievement. Most settled on a victory in the inaugural Brickyard 400, or perhaps the four titles.
But what just happened at Homestead might top them all.
“I mean, that’s life‑changing,” Gordon said Friday when asked about the mere possibility of winning the title. “I’m sure it’s been done in some sport, but I don’t think it’s ever been done in this sport.
“That’s too much for me to think about. I have no idea. It would be the best one I ever did, I can tell you that.”
Pinch yourself, NASCAR nation. Now it’s real. As it turns out, some dreams do come true.
Joey Logano, 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Joey Logano’s nickname at one time was “Sliced Bread,” as in the best thing since.
But that moniker got moldy and was eventually dropped when the first four years of his NASCAR career made him look more like a bust than a budding star.
As of Sunday night, he doesn’t need to worry about a nickname anymore. Now Logano can simply be called “champion.”
Logano’s Sprint Cup Series championship, clinched by beating three other drivers in the first-ever winner-take-all finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, marks the first of many championships for the Team Penske driver.
He’s only 24 years old – the same age Jeff Gordon was when he won his first championship – but is already in his sixth full season. Drivers often seem to get better with age and experience, peaking in their late 30s.
That should frighten Logano’s competitors, because it means he probably has two decades of racing left if he stays healthy. With that much time, and with already so much talent, Logano could become the next Jimmie Johnson.
But first, he’ll have a championship to celebrate and a brand to build. This will elevate his profile, which is currently nonexistent beyond NASCAR circles. Logano wasn’t one of last year’s 10 most popular drivers and, despite major sponsors like Shell and Coca-Cola, isn’t a recognizable name in the sports world.
That should start to change now that he’s a NASCAR champion – and happens to occupy the demographic NASCAR seeks as well. Though Logano often hears boos during driver introductions due to past clashes with veterans such as Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, he’s actually an affable happy-go-lucky kid who can usually be found with a smile on his face.
Logano’s life is about to change, though. He’ll carry the mantle of champion into a busy offseason in which he plans to marry fiancée Brittany Baca on Dec. 13 (she picked the date 12/13/14 to make it easy for him to remember).
Legendary driver Mark Martin said Logano “can be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR. I’m positive. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
That was in 2005. Logano was 15.
Nine years later, the champ is just getting started.
Denny Hamlin, 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – To win his first championship, Denny Hamlin just needed to Be Like Mike.
With friend Michael Jordan on hand for support, Hamlin exorcised his personal demons from choking away the 2010 title and won his first career NASCAR title Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, known to call his shot, repeatedly emphasized how confident he was in his car and ability at Homestead prior to Sunday’s race. But he wasn’t the favorite, since Hamlin had scored just one top-five finish in the Chase for the Sprint Cup prior to the finale.
Ultimately, Hamlin came through and delivered on a promise he made to Gibbs as a kid in 1992: He’d someday drive for JGR and win a title for the former football coach.
Thanks to Hamlin, Gibbs now has more Cup titles (four) than Super Bowl rings (three). And according to Hamlin, everyone should have seen this coming.
When NASCAR changed the Chase for the Sprint Cup format in January, Hamlin immediately decided the new rules were made for him.
He slid into a booth at his favorite restaurant , eyes poking from beneath a baseball cap, and laid out how his championship would happen. If he could survive the first two rounds, the third round – featuring some of his best tracks – would be almost a sure thing.
And then there was Homestead, which Hamlin said was perhaps his favorite track – even more than Martinsville Speedway.
Apparently, more people should have listened. That’s exactly how the championship unfolded – and now Hamlin can stop getting questions about whether he has the mental fortitude to deliver in a clutch situation.
After all, it was just four years ago when Hamlin coughed up a lead in the final race, letting the pressure get to him as Jimmie Johnson won the title instead.
This time, Hamlin was determined to relax and have fun. He told friends and family not to talk about racing but keep the conversations casual and light. He spent Saturday night at an early birthday dinner instead of locking himself in his motorhome.
The soon-to-be 34-year-old might not be done yet, either. He’s quietly been one of NASCAR’s top drivers since JGR plucked him from the Late Model ranks and then elevated him to Cup in 2006.
With a championship under his belt and the confidence to know what he can do under the new Chase format, Sunday’s championship might not be his only one.
Ryan Newman, 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion
(Note: I wrote this under the assumption that if Newman won the title, he wouldn’t do so by winning the race. I almost got burned on this one.)
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The tortoise beat the hare.
Ryan Newman didn’t have the fastest car, the best team or the most resources this season. He didn’t have the statistics, either – no wins and just four top-five finishes entering NASCAR’s championship race.
But it was Newman, not his heavily-favored competitors, who emerged victorious Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway as the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion.
He is perhaps the most unlikely NASCAR champ ever, the result of a new system that was supposed to emphasize winning but instead produced the first winless champion in series history.
The merits of Newman’s title will be debated for years. But whether or not he was deserving in the traditional sense, Newman started the season under the same rules as everyone else – and beat them all.
Newman and his Richard Childress Racing team survived three elimination rounds — they used consistency to make it through – and then beat the faster cars of Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin straight up in the championship race.
Every other driver had the same opportunity as Newman, but he’s the one who pulled it off. In that sense, it’s not his fault that NASCAR has a winless champion; he did what it took to win the title.
But NASCAR should absolutely make a tweak to the format to ensure this situation never happens again. The best solution might be to say no winless driver can qualify for the four-driver championship race unless they’ve won at least one race by the end of the Eliminator Round.
That way, consistency can be rewarded for 35 races but it would stop short of letting a winless driver become champion.
Of course, that ship has sailed now. Newman is somehow NASCAR’s new champion, and everyone involved with the sport will have to take a closer look at how exactly this could have happened.